Thanks for giving

Okay, so now that we’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot… and then put a farmers market on top of that (and called it macaroni), where are we, really, this Thanksgiving?  Was this land really made for you and me?  And if so, why?

Sure the ghosts of Native Americans haunt and hover around our feast-laden tables and around the strip malls and tract homes that may have once been sacred lands, but where do we go from here if we are to live free of fear, guilt, shame and desire?  What might we learn from the spirits that surround us and inform our country’s karma, spirits which may well be our country’s karma?

In the context of impermanence, who can really be said to “own” a land?  Druids, Saxons, Gauls, Brits, Germans, Yanks, Indians, Native Peoples?  And what about when the icy fingers of glaciers tighten their grip once again upon a land truly owned by no human being?  We may, for all we know, ourselves be the spiritual descendents of vanished beings who have returned to inhabit confused western bodies and minds, to inherit the wind of this place and time.  Perhaps this might help account for our country’s general state of stuckness and malaise.

Alfred Adler was the third wheel of modern psychology’s initial tricycle; Freud was all about the sex and Jung was a mystic (who came to the U.S. and communed with Native Americans and went to Africa to hang with fast-vanishing tribal people as well) but Adler was the people’s shrink:  he was interested in helping regular folks and we have him to thank for such terms as “inferiority complex” and sibling rivalry.  He was the first to advocate feminism and a more democratic, rather than authoritarian, parenting style.  Adler felt that the key differential in life is doing things with, or without, social interest; to lawyer, or police, or doctor or bake for the good of the group was the key to healthy functioning.  Perhaps he has something there.

Adler believed that a person’s earliest memories are a window into his or her world-view.  Given how many random things occur in our lives, what we actually remember is thought, by Adler, to reflect “life is good when…” or “life is bad when…” moments—glimpses of a way of experiencing the world that become reinforced, almost calcified (if left unconscious) into our personalities.  For example, a child who was never held or given adequate loving attention to might grow up with a vivid early memory of being on a teacher’s lap and treated with compassion (a “life is good when” moment, important and remembered for its very rarity); conversely, a kid who was generally treated well might remember a singular moment of shame or punishment (a “life is bad when…” example).

But what about collective memory?  While Plymouth Rock and Witch Trials are clusters of somewhat diffuse collective experience, the original Thanksgiving feast is one of the few singular memories we carry, and perpetuate, from our nation’s earliest post-“discovery” period by white Europeans/settlers.  Even harking to idealized mists of pre-colonial time when the buffalo roamed shot only with arrows, we have no singular early memory.

Thus Thanksgiving itself might be our nation’s earliest mythologized memory—a “life is good when…” Hallmark moment—a standout of convivial trust and sharing in an otherwise messy and shameful litany of smallpox, betrayal, displacement and genocide.  So of course we break out the soft-focus lens and the harvest colors, watch a football game and fill our bellies, all the while proclaiming our gratitude… but for what?  After all, are we celebrating something we were given, or is it celebrating something that we took (and now only imagine that we were given)?

Are we grateful that we “won” this land?  I suppose that we ought to be.  But however it happened, now that it is our land, it’s no longer Native Americans alone who we must thank and honor, but the land itself.  In this way perhaps, we have a harvest festival upon our hands, and that is lovely; but that is not uniquely American.  Perhaps the true spirit of Thanksgiving connects us with our fellows across the oceans, as well as with the animals and the earth itself.

So if Thanksgiving, like parenting, is more an attitude than the mere fact of bounty (be it land in one’s yard or children at one’s table), then perhaps Thanksgiving is a great day to contemplate how we might better parent the world in which we live, starting with the land itself and extending to its inhabitants.

I have noticed that gratitude seems to come in two different flavors:  a) “I’m so lucky to have dinner because people are starving in India”; versus b), “I’m so thankful for what I have because I’ve learned to accept and appreciate whatever it is that I have (and no one need go without in order for me to appreciate)”.

In the first instance our happiness depends, in some way, upon the unhappiness of others, while in the alternate version there is enough gratitude for everyone to feel the love.  This difference informs the spirit of our giving; do we give because we are guilty, or empty or restless with what we have (for what we, nationally, have done and cannot, like Lady MacBeth, wash away)?  Or do we give because we are happy and so our generosity naturally flows forth like love or creativity?  If we’re so lucky as to have our cup runneth over, we have true happiness and the overflow is given freely; if we cannot give freely, we need a cup more than we need any particular thing in that cup (see the colander and the bowl for more on the essential gift of the cup, the root of the cornucopia).

Perhaps this Thanksgiving we might drop the sanctimonious collective guilt about our good fortune, the Pilgrim/profiteer/wolf in Puritan sheep’s clothing (with a Wild Turkey side-car), and actually honor ourselves and each other in the here and now by truly wanting exactly what we have (complete with piles of dishes, family issues, skirmishes, dramas and gossip) and placing our resultant boon of being present to the ever-luminous moment in honor of all our collective children, particularly the souls of our Original Peoples (who you may see if you gaze softly enough around the Thanksgiving table… those who parented this land differently, not necessarily better or worse, in these oddly omnipresent days before we paved paradise and put up a farmer’s market).

Life is good when we transcend all manner of differences and gather in good cheer, respect, and generosity… ideally in love.  Such is the brand and the message of Thanksgiving.  So, whether or not the collective national early memory that comes down to us as Thanksgiving (with jazz hands) is all that we’ve been taught, this day is that day if we say so and embrace it.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. for a treasure trove of Native American images and spirit visit:


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12 Responses to “Thanks for giving”

  1. Beth B Says:


    Thank you for this post.
    (Do you know who is credited with taking the color photo of the mother with baby?)

    A happy “holiday” to you.

    My best,

  2. Mark Brady Says:

    Interestingly, I find myself most thankful these days when I can help increase my own and other people’s “life is good” moments. It wasn’t always like that and it might not be again, but that’s the way it is, on this day in November, 2010 at 4:45AM! 😉

  3. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    b), “I’m so thankful for what I have because I’ve learned to accept and appreciate whatever it is that I have (and no one need go without in order for me to appreciate)”.

    Living in this way means truly embracing NOW. Even when now seems sort of “bad”. When my step-father was dying and I was the one in charge of his estate and it was getting a little ugly…I remember coming into an awareness of choice. This was my chance to prove I really believed this. Can I be grateful even now in the midst of this mess?

    And it changed everything.

    And I was able to ride that, albeit bumpy wave, like a surfer. Now I wasn’t a good surfer. But I shifted. And instead of letting life bump into me and pummel me, I began to ride the waves…with gratitude.

    No one needs to lack for me to live in abundance.

    (And, just so you know: the Miles of Aisles album? A pivotal album in my life.)

    Sitting here being grateful for you.

  4. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    PS: the colander and the bowl piece? Still my favorite piece you’ve written.

  5. Beth K Says:

    Thanks for your Thanksgiving post, Bruce. I enjoyed learning about Adler. And, as usual, I find your overall message grounding.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and to all.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    “Food” for thought, as always, Bruce. (And I love the colandar and the bowl metaphor.)

    Heartfelt wishes for a wonderful holiday.


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